I picked up this tiny paperback edition in Waterstones in the Metrocentre in about November last year. My arms were full of books as gifts in preparation for Christmas and my daughter’s birthday. There, at the cashdesk, was a gorgeous little edition of this ghost story, in black with a mint-green foil embossed cover. It was £1.99 and I couldn’t resist. What better for Winter than a Charles Dickens ghost story?
The Signalman is a lovely, short story in which our main protagonist stumbles upon a mysterious signal house at a railway track. The weathered signalman of the title is a man haunted by visions, portents in the form of screaming spectres. Their appearances are followed shortly afterwards by horrific railway accidents. His problem is, the visions do not tell him where, or when disaster will strike, and so he is tortured, with the means to foresee disaster, but not the detail with which to avert it.
I won’t say anymore on this, as it’s such a short story it’s difficult to go further and keep it spoiler-free. Suffice to say, I really enjoyed The Signalman. Full of Dickens’ signature dialogue and description, this is perfect if you want a quick slice of gothic ghost story – and if you’re like me, that always hits the spot.
The little volume also features another short called The Boy at Mugby. Now, when I started this story, I was intrigued by the opening lines:
I am the boy at Mugby, that’s about what I am.
You don’t know what I mean? What a pity! But I think you do. I think you must. Look here, I am the boy at what is called The Refreshment Room at Mugby Junction, and what’s proudest boast is, that it never yet refreshed a mortal being.
“Never yet refreshed a mortal being” that clutch of words held so much promise for me. As many of my regular visitors, friends and contacts may know, I have a real soft spot for the Studio Ghibli animation Spirited Away (who doesn’t love that film?).
The bathhouse solely for the purpose of replenishing tired spirits, the railway submerged under a couple of feet of water, with the train riding through the flood, carrying shadowy souls to their destinations. That’s where my mind went immediately.
A refreshment room at a railway station, where spirits sit and wait, perhaps forever, for the train to their destination…
This story is nothing like that. It’s very good, and is one of Dickens’ satirical observations, poking fun at the state of railway refreshments in Britain in his time. Not that they’re that much better now, I must say. His characters pride themselves on undrinkable tea, impenetrable baked goods and horrendous customer service. They denounce the approach of the French, with their beautifully prepared travel lunches and delicate confections.
This is Dickens showing us that not one aspect of life in his day escaped his pin-sharp eye. Everything was worthy of his comment, even matters as small and trivial as the refreshments served at railways. His soap-box, it seems, was not reserved only for social justice and the plight of the poor. You can tell he had great fun writing it; he becomes ever more fanciful as the little tale goes on.
I was a little disappointed that it was included based on the railway connection. I would really rather have had another ghost story, but for £1.99, this was a great little volume and I was pleased to have found it.